Far from settling the family separation issue, President Trump’s executive order last month has only solidified the battle lines, with his administration saying it is left with no choice but to keep entire families detained and Democrats and liberal activists saying no illegal immigrants should be detained at all.
Believing they have seized momentum after Mr. Trump backed down on separations, those activists now say the agency responsible for detaining and deporting illegal immigrations, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, should be scrapped altogether.
The call is becoming a litmus test for Democratic candidates. It has been picked up as a rallying cry by Hollywood elites eager for another issue over which to attack the president, and on Saturday it sent tens of thousands of people into the streets in cities across the country.
Mr. Trump says it’s a losing issue for them and vowed in a series of tweets and an interview this weekend to back ICE agents and officers.
“That’s going to be their platform, open borders, which equals crime. I think they’ll never win another election, so I’m actually quite happy about it,” Mr. Trump told Fox News’ Channel’s Maria Bartiromo.
Mr. Trump ignited the debate with his zero-tolerance policy at the border, announced by the Justice Department in May, which involved jailing most border jumpers. It was meant to send a message to migrants that crossing the border illegally would have immediate consequences.
In cases where parents came to the border with children, that meant separating them because there aren’t family detention spaces in the criminal justice system.
But after massive resistance from Democrats and Republicans, religious leaders and the business community, the president relented. Two weeks ago, he signed an executive order ending most family separations.
Democrats said that was a good start but argued that he needed to go further and release illegal immigrant families into the community. Even being detained with their parents is traumatic for children, they said.
It has grown into a major movement.
On Thursday, some 630 women were arrested at one of the Senate office buildings in Washington during a protest calling for ICE to be abolished. On Saturday, tens of thousands of people marched in cities across the country with the same rallying cry.
“As a woman and as a mother, I refuse to stay silent as parents on the border are separated from their kids,” said Tamika Mallory, co-chair of the Women’s March, who was one of those arrested. “Our fight won’t end until all mothers are reunited with their children, which is why we are demanding an end to immigrant detention once and for all.”
The Trump administration has flatly rejected that option, saying it would amount to “catch and release” — when illegal immigrants are processed and released into the community on the usually false hope that they will return for their deportation hearings.
“The government will not separate families but detain families together during the pendency of immigration proceedings when they are apprehended at or between ports of entry,” the Justice Department said in a filing with Judge Dolly M. Gee, who for the past few years has been the key force controlling family detention.
Polling suggests Mr. Trump’s new stance is the more popular.
A YouGov/Economist survey taken just as Mr. Trump issued his executive order found just 19 percent backed the release of families on the assumption that they would return later. By contrast, 20 percent wanted family separation through arrests and jailing of parents.
But the plurality — 44 percent — backed the government’s current position: that the families be held together in detention centers until their immigration hearings and then be deported or allowed to stay.
The administration also says it now has legal backing for its policy.
That is based on a complicated set of court cases. The Justice Department, in briefs filed late Friday, said a ruling last week that ordered a stop to family separation indicated that the government does have the right to keep the families detained.
The Justice Department says that ruling, known as the Ms. L case, contradicts a ruling by another federal judge in what is known as the Flores Settlement, which until now ordered that children be held in immigration detention no longer than 20 days.
“The Ms. L ruling addresses reunification of children with their parents, and specifically requires reunification ‘when the parent is returned to immigration custody’ after a release from criminal custody,” the government said. “But this aspect of the Ms. L ruling would make little sense if that reunification would necessitate an immediate release of the parents from immigration custody under the Flores Agreement.”
The turmoil for ICE comes as it loses the man who has been leading it for the past 17 months. The retirement of Thomas D. Homan, who had been acting as chief of ICE, became effective Saturday.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen announced that Ronald D. Vitiello, a former top Border Patrol official, would take over as acting chief.
Mr. Vitiello has been the acting deputy commissioner at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, ICE’s sister immigration law enforcement agency, where oversaw initial construction of Mr. Trump’s border wall.
Mr. Trump this weekend offered his full support for ICE.
“To the great and brave men and women of ICE, do not worry or lose your spirit,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “You are doing a fantastic job of keeping us safe by eradicating the worst criminal elements. So brave! The radical left Dems want you out. Next it will be all police. Zero chance, It will never happen!”